After a record 439 straight days in space, Russia’s star cosmonaut came home Wednesday looking remarkably fit, passing out handshakes and slapping high fives.
Valery Polyakov, a 52-year-old physician, returned to Earth with two other cosmonauts and was flown to the cosmonaut training base outside Moscow.
There they were whisked away for a week or two of medical tests and reconditioning - but not before being feted outside with flowers, cheers and the traditional bread and salt by about three dozen well-wishers and doctors.
“He looks wonderful,” said Polyakov’s tearful wife, Nelli, who had a cold and could only approach her husband wearing a surgical mask. Doctors said the cosmonaut is especially vulnerable to germs after his marathon space flight.
In 14 1/2 months on the Mir space station, Polyakov circled the Earth more than 7,000 times.
He, cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova, and commander Alexander Viktorenko left behind a new three-person crew on the Mir, including U.S. astronaut Norman Thagard. Thagard aims to break the Americans’ comparatively modest record of 84 straight days in space.
Kondakova also set a record, for a woman in space: 170 days.
The three cosmonauts touched down just after 7 a.m. Wednesday (11 p.m. EST Tuesday) on the steppes of Kazakhstan in a Soyuz descent module.
“It’s Mother Earth,” Polyakov said as he was helped out of the capsule, seated in a chair on the snowy steppe and wrapped in a fur coat, according to footage from the NTV network.
The cosmonauts brought back more than 23 pounds of film and data from experiments on the Mir, the ITAR-Tass news agency said. After a brief examination in Arkalyk, a Kazakh town 22 miles from where they landed, the cosmonauts were reported feeling fine.
Polyakov needed no assistance climbing down from the plane near Star City, officials said. He was quiet but beaming as he arrived outside the clinic.
His stint in space broke the 366-day record set by cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov in December 1988. Polyakov has spent an unsurpassed total of 607 days in space.
Polyakov spoke with his family once a week by phone from aboard the Mir.